It didn’t take long after the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani for the draft notices to go out. Telephones around the country buzzed last week, bringing apparent news that their owners were “marked eligible” and needed to report to the nearest Army branch office. “Please contact us immediately,” the messages urged. The U.S. appeared on the brink of war after escalating tensions with Tehran, and many people felt genuine panic at the sight of the texts.
It was the perfect context, depression memes and all, for an otherwise rudimentary hoax. No, the Army wasn’t calling people into war through a text message. In fact, a draftee wouldn’t be receiving the initial call-up from a specific branch of the military at all.
Mandatory military conscription is one of the most dramatic elements of America’s history of war in the 20th century, with millions of young men being pulled into conflicts stretching from Northern Europe to Korea to Vietnam. Some of the greatest war stories ever written, including Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan, revolve around the pathos of boys confronting their greatest doubts and fears while transforming into the arrowhead of the American war machine. The inclusive randomness of drafts made heroes out of small-town kids and city slickers alike, and in one form or another, draft day became a metaphor of boys becoming men — especially if they didn’t want to go.
That all ended after a final conscription in December 1972, coinciding with the end of active ground operations in Vietnam. The draft lottery continued for three more years, but none of the selected men would be ordered to show. In a sense, this part of American history is fading away completely; the last draftee, Command Sgt. Major Jeff Mellinger, retired from service nearly a decade ago.
But how would a draft look in 2020? Do we even need as many soldiers as we once did in a global conflict? And, crucially: Why are some calling for the reinstatement of the draft?
Let’s find out…
Why Did We Transition Away From Conscription?
By the end of the Vietnam War, the idea of another draft was deeply unpopular across both sides of the political aisle. People didn’t want a pipeline of labor for another dragged-out conflict, with young bodies stacking up overseas and the American economy stagnating under the weight of a generation lost. Meanwhile, experts like economist Milton Friedman had begun championing the idea of an all-volunteer force, designing the framework for the paid ranks we see today.
“Anti-Vietnam liberals and leftists thought the end of conscription would hamstring the war in Southeast Asia and diminish the military’s influence over American life. Those on the right championed the all-volunteer force as a model for their free-market agenda,” Rutgers University history professor Jennifer Mittelstadt wrote at Vox.
What ended up happening is that a large number of service and support roles were transitioned from active military branches into the Reserves and National Guard. The War Powers Resolution of 1973, meanwhile, made it so that manpower couldn’t be used except with Congressional approval.
How Could a Draft Be Triggered Today?
It would require a conflict that’s boiling over into an all-out ground war. “Some kind of mass-mobilization; a war on Korean peninsula, or a more conventional confrontation with Russia or China,” as retired Army Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich told Military.com.
The U.S. currently touts the third-highest military manpower in the world, which suggests only a major swell in the cost of paying volunteers could create wide support for conscription. That wide support is necessary because Congress would have to pass a measure to reinstate the draft, and the president would need to sign it into law. In other words, lawmakers would have to reach across the aisle and justify an act considered deeply unpopular with the public. And that’s a stretch, at least according to Debra Wada, the vice chair of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.
“The House and Senate would both have to pass a piece of legislation, and … I’ll let people make their own personal determination of whether that’s likely to happen,” she told Military.com.
Worth noting is that the manpower needed in our wars has shrunk since Vietnam. The number of active-duty U.S. troops overseas peaked at 1.2 million in 1967; the following year broke a single-country record with 537,000 troops in Vietnam. Nowadays, we have 1.3 million active troops total. The war in Afghanistan peaked with 82,000 troops, while the massive and bloody invasion of Iraq required a peak of 218,000 people. Some experts are even unsure whether we have the resources to train a fresh draft class, let alone disseminate them abroad.
How Would the Draft Unfold?
First thing to know is that there’s a priority for ages: All men who turn 20 in the year of the draft go first, continuing in order through age 25 (those 26 and older have “aged out” of the system already). It’s only after expending these resources that 18- and 19-year-olds would be called up.
Within these age groups, a random lottery system is used to determine who gets the first draft orders, under the purview of the federal Selective Service System. It looks a lot like a state-run lottery, with two drums spinning balls that are labeled with birth dates and numbers from 1 to 365. At the end of the process, each day of the year will have a corresponding rank number. If No. 1 is, say, January 15th, then every man who turns 20 years old on that date would be the first to report. The draft would continue in order until the need for troops is met.
The lottery would be shown on every TV network, and draft notices would come in the mail, not via text message. The letter would give you 10 days to report to a local facility for a pre-induction medical exam. If you show up and pass the physical, you can get on a bus to basic training that same day.
What If I’m Drafted but Don’t Want to Go?
Keep in mind that signing up for Selective Service is mandatory for all men (and trans women who were assigned male at birth). You probably did it shortly after turning 18, while registering to vote. Not signing up means you’re barred from some federal benefits (including student aid and federal jobs), and getting caught can mean fines and jail time.
But by some accounts, the odds of getting a criminal charge for trying to dodge a draft in this way appear seriously slim. And did you know that you’re supposed to be updating the Selective Service System with your address every time you move? If you haven’t, chances are, your draft letter will be going to the wrong house.
Let’s say that you’ve already registered and have a draft order in hand. You can then try to classify as a conscientious objector to a “local board” of military representatives. The most commonly exempted people are clergy members and missionaries, but even without religion, proof that you subscribe to a specific moral and ethical code can be enough to get you out of the war effort.
“He may provide written documentation or include personal appearances by people he knows who can attest to his claims. His written statement might explain how he arrived at his beliefs, and the influence his beliefs have had on how he lives his life,” the Selective Service explains. “In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.”
There are up to two appeal boards you can see if you receive an initial “no,” but generally, it’s not easy to fake a CO designation. If you do secure it, you’ll still have mandatory work to do, but in a civilian role.
In previous drafts, it was extremely easy for college students to get out of conscription merely by showing they were actively studying something; nowadays, deferments from school are temporary, only lasting until the end of the academic year. College was one of many loopholes that some Americans (including Donald Trump) used to dodge the draft, along with paying doctors for fraudulent medical notices and forging other documents. Others simply chose jail time over participating in war. (Here’s a handy flowchart, courtesy of writer and anti-war activist Edward Hasbrouk, for all the possible outcomes.)
Wait, Did You Say That Some People Support Reinstating the Draft?
Yes, and it reflects the initial divide in rhetoric between supporters of the all-volunteer force — some think a draft is the only way to curb the amount of war the U.S. government is involved in, while others see conscription as the only solution to lagging recruitment and rising costs in our volunteer military.
It is true that the cost for each soldier is increasing, thanks to the escalating cost of health care, family housing and wages needed to attract volunteers. This escalating cost is a “ticking time bomb” according to senior Pentagon officials, and problematic in the disproportionate impact recruitment has had on poorer young workers. But even those workers are looking elsewhere amid improvements in the economy; the U.S. Army reported a major recruitment shortage in 2018.
Meanwhile, others are interested in forcing more Americans to have more “skin in the game,” as retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich observes. He argues that the root cause of the Forever Wars and other aggressive actions abroad is a deep and lingering apathy from the U.S. public toward the consequences of war. “We currently have two war parties, even if Democrats and Republicans use different language in describing the purposes of the wars they support,” he told Military.com.
Mittelstadt, in her piece for Vox, reflected the same concern while adding that the detachment between the military and civilians today has created an artificial reverence for service members, veterans and war-machine might. People are far less critical or curious about foreign affairs today, she observes, with a tribalistic attitude toward “supporting the troops.”
“To the dismay of anti-war liberals and leftists, the volunteer military hasn’t reduced war but instead facilitated easier commitment of U.S. troops to conflicts abroad,” she writes. “In the future, the most notable long-term consequence of the all-volunteer force likely will be its success as a free-market institution. The all-volunteer force ushered in the privatization of the armed service. … Many military experts believe that continued privatization will fuel the emergence of fully private armies of corporate warriors around the world.”
In a strange way, this reflects how disgraced former President Richard Nixon once believed that ending the draft could actually work against anti-war activists, as affluent young people would stop their protests if their own chances of going to Vietnam disappeared.
Could implementing a draft and a war tax after 9/11 have curtailed the Forever Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s hard to imagine that happening, but it’s a compelling case nonetheless.